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Housing Hysteria

Michael J. Ring

As freshmen struggle with their residence selection process this evening, MIT and the City of Cambridge are devoting significant attention to increasing graduate housing.

The oft-delayed graduate dormitory in University Park finally reached a Planning Board hearing this week. With favorable reactions from city leaders to MIT’s plans, the new dormitory should be open by August 2002.

City councillors and planning board members have generally supported the MIT proposal. Naturally, there are some concerns -- parking and traffic are always sticking points in Cambridge -- and MIT is still looking for the right mix of retail tenants for the building’s ground floor. But Cambridge City Councillor Henrietta Davis, chair of the Transportation, Traffic, and Parking Committee, is satisfied that MIT is working on those points.

Cambridgeport residents also shared a cautious optimism that the new dormitory would improve the neighborhood. Most recognized that MIT was trying to incorporate their concerns into the building’s plan.

But some residents did not share this disposition. MIT was kicked around by some at the meeting for its alleged failure to support the city’s working poor, alleviate the stifling rental market, and give back to its host city.

And that tongue-lashing was nothing compared to what our friends up the river were recently put through by the city. The Riverside community of Cambridge was furious at Harvard University for not discussing with them plans for a new graduate student tower. There was only one caveat -- the tower was to be built in Allston, not Cambridge, and therefore Harvard was concerned with the city of Boston.

If Cambridge residents were allowed to dictate the shape and height of this building, as some Riverside residents apparently wanted to do, what interference in another community’s planning and zoning would have been next? Taking 20 stories off the Pru and Hancock towers because they block the view of Blue Hill? Going after Somerville because it allows gritty industrial zones to abut Cambridge?

The anti-development hysteria espoused by some community activists has reached Kafkaesque proportions, as now some extremist neighborhood warriors turn their guns on the very projects that will ease the housing pressures they are supposedly fighting. While many activists are increasingly supportive of expanded graduate housing, a select few refuse to realize that university development can and must occur to reduce rents in Cambridge.

The prevailing attitude in the city of Cambridge toward development has been one of confrontation rather than cooperation and mitigation. Residents and leaders alike continually fail to realize how lucky Cambridge is to attract development. Other industrial cities in Massachusetts and around the nation salivate at the growth and success of this city in transforming itself from a manufacturing-based to service and technology-based economy. Development, while bringing disruption and generating traffic, is an essential part of this evolution. As long as the adverse side effects of development are managed well, new building can unleash wondrous opportunities for the city.

Thankfully, most Cambridgeport residents are becoming aware of how a new graduate dormitory will alleviate rents in the city. The graduate dormitory is an important step toward making housing more affordable to Cambridge residents by taking hundreds of students out of the market. The presence of graduate students is beneficial to Cambridgeport residents, and most local residents realize that. If only the rest of the city and region would recognize the value of this approach in dealing with other college dormitory construction.